Talk about 1980s motorcycling icons and there really is one bike that stands head and shoulders above the rest – Honda’s legendary VFR750R.
Honda’s flagship sportsbike from 1987 had all the hallmarks of an instant classic. It enjoyed ground-breaking technology (cribbed from Honda’s factory endurance racers), rarity when new (only 3000 built over three years) and racetrack success (with two world superbike titles for starters). It became a legend straight away. The hand-built VFR was developed by HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) as a platform for the new Superbike World Championships, the VFR750R was better known by its factory codename, RC30. RC30s were expensive when new. At launch in March 1988, an RC30 would set you back £8499. That was twice as much as other 750cc sportsbikes on the market (Honda’s own VFR750F retailed for £4249) and today you’ll need between £20-30,000 to own this slice of motorcycling history. For many, it’s a price worth paying and a solid long term investment according to many classic motorcycle collectors.
The RC30 can trace its roots back to the Honda’s RVF factory racer of 1985. The RVF was HRC’s Formula One machine. Formula One was a prototype racing class for 750cc four-strokes and ran in the world endurance championships and the TT Formula One series, which consisted of a mix of pure roads circuits (such as the Isle of Man TT and Ulster Grand Prix) and short circuits like Donington Park. The RVF was hugely successful as a racebike and won the all-important Suzuka Eight-Hours race with Australian Wayne Gardner in 1985 and 1986 (Gardner and the RVF also won in 1991 and 1992, when he was paired with fellow Aussie legends Mick Doohan and Daryl Beattie respectively). Stars like Joey Dunlop, Carl Fogarty and Steve Hislop also wrote the RVF into the TT history books.
But in 1988 there was a new challenge in the form of the Superbike World Championship. Interest in Formula One was dwindling and the new superbike championship would ultimately replace it (although the two co-existed until the end of 1990).
Unlike Formula One, superbike rules dictated that the bikes be closely based on production models. Four-cylinder bikes had a 750cc limit, while twins were allowed to be up to a litre. Honda came out of the blocks firing with the RC30, a thinly disguised racebike with roads that would become the backbone of the new superbike class of racing. Full-power road bikes made just 112bhp (some Euro countries were restricted to 100bhp, and Japan was even less) but the bike was designed to work with an HRC race kit, to liberate more power on the track.
The chassis looked to have come straight off the grid at Suzuka. The geometry came straight from the RVF, while the modern twin-spar alloy frame, an endurance developed single sided swingarm, solo seat, high-end brakes and adjustable Showa suspension were way beyond other production bikes of the era. On track, the main competition in 1988 came from two limited run Italian bikes, in the form of the powerful, Yamaha engined, Bimota YB4ie and Ducati’s booming new 851. As small volume manufacturers, both Bimota and Ducati only had to make 200 bikes to be eligible to compete in the new series, while Honda and the other big boys needed to make 1000. In the end, demand for the RC30 was such that Honda bowed to demand and built more than the minimum requirement, even holding a ballot to determine who would ultimately get a bike. RC30s went on sale through to 1990, while the miniature NC30, a 400cc race replica was also very popular during the 1990s grey import boom.
All the best superbikes of 1988 were designed as racebikes first, before being retro engineered into road going bikes to meet the homologation requirements. The Honda was never designed as a road bike and it’s tall first gear was good for 80mph but not particularly brilliant in traffic. While the chassis was sublime, the motor was the real party piece. The V4 engine featured an RVF-style 360-degree crankshaft to give a ‘big-bang’ power delivery. The RC30 was hugely tractable and gave a glorious growl at full chat that became a soundtrack to the TT races of the time.
Honda won the inaugural superbike series in 1988 with Fred Merkel on the Italian run Rumi RC30, and the colourful Californian retained the title in 1989. By 1990, Ducati was in full swing and continued to develop the 851/888 into the bike to beat. Fred and fellow Honda rider Stephane Mertens remained competitive though, winning three races each, and the RC30 remained a force to be reckoned with in national championships, world endurance and on the roads. In total, the RC30 scored 16 wins over three years in the Superbike World Championship – eight for Merkel, seven for Mertens and a solitary win for Portuguese rider Alex Vieira in 1989.
As the Eighties turned into the Nineties, the superbike class would lead to the rise of other ‘homologation specials’ – small run production models with modifications designed to help race teams, like different carburettors and close ratio gearboxes.
By 1989, Yamaha had launched the OW01, its own answer to the dominant Honda, while Kawasaki and Suzuki brought out ‘RR’ versions of their ZXR750 and GSX-R750 models. Ducati increased the engine capacity of its V-twin and went from strength to strength on road and track, while Bimota struggled for finance and bounced from drama to drama. A well sorted Honda remained an option for privateers but was never a true frontrunner again.
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Honda came back in 1994 with the RVF750R RC45, the RC30’s replacement. Rarer and more expensive than the RC30 when it was launched, the 45 never really had the cache of bike it replaced. It was designed to win the world superbike championship, and eventually did so after four seasons, but unlike the RC30, which gave factory levels of equipment to the masses of privateers, the RC45 could only be made to challenge the dominant Ducatis with the benefit of a big budget factory team behind it.
Today the RC30 and RC45 are both hugely collectable and fetching good money, but for gooey eyed memories it is the RC30 that is the most fondly remembered.
So many spent their lives on the race track, where they were designed to be, but despite that there are usually always some decent road going bikes to be found in the classifieds, if you’re willing to shell out the money.
There are also many racebikes out there. The ones with great provenance can go for even bigger money than mint road bikes but if you just want to drink in the atmosphere and hear that glorious V-four roar again, head on over to a classic race meeting and remember the days when the RC30 ruled the world.